Sex worker advocate Priscilla Alexander dies

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Wednesday December 20, 2023
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Priscilla Alexander. Photo: From Facebook
Priscilla Alexander. Photo: From Facebook

Priscilla Alexander, a lesbian and sex worker advocate who worked with the late Margo St. James in San Francisco, died November 18 in New York City. She was 84.

Suzanne Joyce, a longtime friend who posted the news to Facebook, stated that Ms. Alexander died of kidney failure.

"She was not in pain and surrounded with notes and messages from many of her friends and colleagues," Joyce wrote.

Long involved in the lesbian community, Ms. Alexander worked as a schoolteacher in San Francisco, according to information provided by friends.

According to information from Ms. Alexander, she met St. James in San Francisco in 1975. A short while later she got involved with COYOTE, short for Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics, the sex worker advocacy group that St. James founded. St. James died in Washington state in 2021, as the Bay Area Reporter previously reported.

Ms. Alexander joined the office of COYOTE in 1977 and succeeded in getting the National Organization for Women to form a committee on Prostitutes' Rights in 1982 and to get most women's conferences around the country to concretely address the issue, according to COYOTE records.

Ms. Alexander and Gloria Lockett were co-directors of the offices of COYOTE, UC CALPEP (California Prostitutes' Education Project), and the National Task Force on Prostitution, concentrating on AIDS prevention and education and on human rights for prostitutes, according to COYOTE records.

Paula Lichtenberg, a longtime friend, stated that she worked with Ms. Alexander on various projects when she lived in San Francisco. The two worked at the San Francisco NOW office; the Feminist Anti-Censorship Task Force, which opposed the anti-porn feminists; and several gay and lesbian groups. Ms. Alexander worked on the 1977 and 1978 San Francisco Pride parades, Lichtenberg added.

Ms. Alexander was a co-founder of the San Francisco Bay Times LGBTQ newspaper in 1978, stated Randy Alfred, a gay man who was the paper's first news editor. In an email to the B.A.R. he noted that she edited the women's page.

"Priscilla was key in the founding of the Bay Times and a devoted, energetic worker to her numerous campaigns for the rights of LGBTQ+ people, women, sex workers, people with AIDS and other issues of social justice for all people," Alfred wrote. "Her devotion to principles sometimes made for contentious work relations, but it was worth the effort to learn from Priscilla and accomplish things with her."

Ms. Alexander was born in New York City on January 27, 1939. She attended the High School of Music and Art there and focused on visual art. Her notes stated that she dreamed of being an artist like her mother, who died when she was 9. Her father was also an artist, mostly in interior design.

She attended Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont and graduated, majoring in set design, as she noted on her Facebook page. After college, she continued to draw and paint in New York and later in San Francisco.

With Frédérique Delacoste, Ms. Alexander co-edited the book "Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry." Friends said that it was a landmark collection of writings that changed the way people think about sex for hire. When it was first published in 1987, the book popularized the term "sex work," coined by the late Carol Leigh, a bi former sex worker, to describe the occupations of street prostitutes, exotic dancers, nude models, escorts, porn actresses and workers in massage parlors and in doing so changed the way people talked about sex for money.

In 1989, Ms. Alexander moved to Geneva, Switzerland to work for the World Health Organization's Global Programme on AIDS, according to materials supplied to the B.A.R. by friends. There she helped promote the term sex worker to, as she once noted, "emphasize that sex is a form of labor, appropriate to labor not criminal law." Ms. Alexander made a number of trips to Africa representing WHO for the Global Programme on AIDS working with African women on AIDS prevention.

She then moved back to her hometown New York City, where she worked with the HIV/AIDS Prevention Project that served women who worked in some of the poorest sections of the city. She also studied for a master's degree in public health at Columbia University at the time, friends said.

On her Facebook page, Ms. Alexander wrote, "My most defining work and greatest joy have been in the sex workers' rights movement."

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